By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear on Nov. 1 a challenge by President Joe Biden’s administration and abortion providers to a Texas law that imposes a near-total ban on the procedure – a case that will determine the fate of the toughest abortion law in the United States.
It is the second major abortion case that the court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has scheduled for the coming months, with arguments set for Dec. 1 over the legality of a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.
The Texas and Mississippi measures are among a series of Republican-backed laws passed at the state level limiting abortion rights – coming at a time when abortion opponents are hoping that the Supreme Court will overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade that legalized the procedure nationwide.
Mississippi has asked the justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the Texas attorney general on Thursday signaled that he also would like to see that ruling fall.
The justices on Friday deferred a decision on the Biden administration’s request that the justices block the Texas law while the litigation continues, prompting a dissent from liberal Justice Sotomayor. Lower courts already have blocked the Mississippi law.
It is rare that the Supreme Court would, as it did in this case, decide to hear arguments while bypassing lower courts that were already considering the Texas dispute, indicating that the justices have deemed the matter of high public importance and requiring immediate review.
The Texas measure bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant. It makes an exception for a documented medical emergency but not for cases of rape or incest.
The Biden administration sued in September, challenging the legality of the Texas law. In taking up the case, the Supreme Court said it will resolve whether the federal government is permitted to bring a lawsuit against the state or other parties to prohibit the abortion ban from being enforced.
The other challenge that the justices took up, filed by Texas abortion providers, asks the court to decide whether the design of the state’s law, which allows private citizens rather than the government to enforce the ban, is permissible. The providers, as well as the administration, have said the law is designed to evade federal court review.
Mississippi’s law bans abortions starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Rulings in that case and the Texas case are due by the end of June 2022, but could come sooner.
The Supreme Court previously allowed the Texas law to be enforced in the challenge brought by abortion providers. In that 5-4 decision on Sept. 1, conservative Chief Justice John Roberts expressed skepticism about how the law is enforced and joined the three liberal justices in dissent.
The Texas law is unusual in that it gives private citizens the power to enforce it by enabling them to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the embryo. That feature has helped shield the law from being immediately blocked as it made it more difficult to directly sue the state.
Individual citizens can be awarded a minimum of $10,000 for bringing successful lawsuits. Critics have said this provision lets people act as anti-abortion bounty hunters, a characterization its proponents reject.
The Biden administration had asked the Supreme Court to quickly restore a federal judge’s Oct. 6 order temporarily blocking the law. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put that order on hold a few days later.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)